If the powerful 20th-century city planner Robert Moses had gotten his way, Manhattan would now be crisscrossed by major highways. SoHo would have been wiped off the map so cars could zip more efficiently through the city.
Moses usually got exactly what he wanted. But not in 1964. The reason was journalist Jane Jacobs.
“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” vividly recounts how one woman with something to lose — her Greenwich Village neighborhood — wound up slaying Goliath. But the movie is also, in a larger sense, about urban planning in general, a fascinating topic that could easily seem dry in the wrong hands. Director Matt Tyrnauer mixes lively archival footage, including a memorable news interview with an angry Italian grandmother, with testimony from passionate experts to demonstrate the importance of city design.
Jacobs was no expert when it came to such matters but, as a journalist, she was endlessly curious. She was also keenly attuned to what was going on around her. While Moses and his contemporaries took a bird’s-eye view of cities, Jacobs was on the street, learning what made New York tick. One of her greatest realizations was that the more people there were on the street, the safer it was. And yet the men in power wanted to replace rundown rowhouses and tenements — where stoop culture was alive and well — with massive housing projects. That would have meant fewer children playing on sidewalks, which in turn meant fewer parents keeping an eye on things.
Jacobs waged war on the prevailing wisdom of the day with her provocative 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Her main point was simple: A city is about people, not buildings. With a blunt bob haircut and oversize glasses, she didn’t look like the typical highbrow intellectual, and her opponents tried to dismiss her. One book critic called her “a housewife from Hudson Street.” She may not have been a city planner, but neither was she a homemaker. Quickly, she proved she could be an activist as well.
If Jacobs is the movie’s hero, Moses is unquestionably the villain. Tyrnauer uses various sound bites from old interviews, including one in which Moses glibly admits that to get his work done, “you have to move a lot of people out of the way.”
The movie is scored like a thriller, seemingly building to some terrifying conclusion. And, in a way, it does: We see dozens of housing projects rise up around the country, only to be torn down years later, when they were recognized as failures.
The stakes are still high, according to the documentary. The current scale and speed of urbanization is unprecedented, one interview subject explains. That means cities are going to have to change to accommodate everyone. Jacobs died in 2006, so it’s up to the rest of us to pay attention to who’s making big decisions, and why.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 93 minutes.